Monday, May 19, 2014

Casa Valentina: Editorializing

Patrick Page, Reed Birney and Nick Westrate in Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

Harvey Fierstein’s new play, Casa Valentina, currently playing on Broadway under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club, has an irresistible starting point: it’s set in a summer resort in the Catskills in 1962 that caters to straight men who like to dress as women. (The getaway is based on a real locale.) And as the host, George, a.k.a. Valentina (Patrick Page), and the guests begin to arrive in drag, wittily costumed by Rita Ryack and coiffed by Jason P. Hayes in outfits and wigs that slyly release the characters’ mischievously hedonistic inner selves, you expect an evening of delirious fun. The cast could hardly be improved upon. Besides Page and the indispensable Mare Winningham as his broad-minded wife and co-proprietor Rita, we have Tom McGowan as the wisecracking Bessie; Larry Pine as “the Judge” (Amy), George’s long-time friend and legal adviser; John Cullum as Terry, the elder statesman of the crew; Reed Birney as Charlotte, who has turned cross-dressing into a political cause; Nick Westrate as clear-eyed Gloria. And, perhaps a trifle too fey, Gabriel Ebert is Jonathon (Miranda), the newbie whom Gloria has persuaded – with some difficulty – to come for a trial weekend. Scott Pask’s cleverly compartmentalized set, suggestively lit by Justin Townsend, allows for the cross-dressers to transform in front of multiple mirrors, a wonderfully theatrical conceit. (Joe Mantello directed it.)

Tom McGowan in Casa Valentina (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
Alas, though, Fierstein doesn’t just want us to enjoy ourselves – he wants to make us into better people. Unfortunately for the talented Birney, Charlotte turns out to be a snake in the grass, a villain who not only wants to purify drag by banning gay men (whom she considers to be predatory pedophiles) but is not above blackmailing the one man in the group who, she has discovered, is clandestinely attracted to other men. Charlotte’s the kind of monster Lillian Hellman would have loved: she extorts her victim for his support for her agenda but intends to throw him to the wolves – the feds – anyway. And he’s not even a practicing homosexual; the farthest he’s even gone is a drunken kiss at a dance, just in case we missed the fact that he’s pure and she’s evil. (She even delights in the fact that he’s repressed his desires all his life and is going to be ruined anyway, treating his anguish as a triumphant irony.) Fierstein covers all his bases. He’s written Gloria, who won’t back Charlotte because she doesn’t believe that sexual attraction is definitive, as a stand-in for his own point of view – always a dead giveaway that a playwright has written a thesis melodrama and wants to make sure that we know where he stands. As if you needed a character in a twenty-first-century play to remind us that homophobia is a bad thing!

McGowan’s Bessie gets the best lines, though by the time the audience has returned from intermission there’s not much merriment left on the scene. Rita’s marriage to George, presented so cheerfully (and colorfully) in act one, turns out to be troubled and she long-suffering. And in the final scene – a real boner – Lisa Emery shows up as the Judge’s daughter, who hates her father and his fellow transvestites for the danger he’s placed himself and his family in for years. Emery is terrible, but I doubt Duse could have done anything with this role.

I saw Casa Valentina the same day I sat through Will Eno’s The Realistic Jones, a pretend play about pretend people with pretend wit masking pretend depth. After that experience, Fierstein’s was a relief; at least it’s a real play. But he makes all the same mistakes Douglas Carter Beane made last season in The Nance: he has a great dramatic subject (Beane’s was the role of the effeminate character in burlesque) but he’d rather crusade than explore it. Why don’t these authors wise up to the fact that preaching – especially to the choir, which, it’s fair to say, a Broadway audience for a gay-themed drama would have to be – is the least interesting choice for a playwright?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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